The Chinese Government spread propaganda on Hong Kong and the Vatican at a secret far-right Catholic meeting in Portugal, two participants at that meeting have confirmed.
Driving the news
Hong Kong politician Martin Lee and Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen told the South China Morning Post that Chinese agents spied on an August 22-25 International Catholic Legislators Network (ICLN) conference in Fátima.
The ICLN International Pilgrimage for Politicians and Family Summit gathered more over 100 prominent Catholic legislators from around the world, including Acting White House chief-of-staff Mick Mulvaney and far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Lee, the founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, said the monitoring began the moment he touched down in Portugal, when a man approached him at Lisbon airport.
“Somebody walked up to me and asked if I was Cardinal Zen. I said, ‘Not me, but him’, and pointed to Zen. Then he said he was a policeman and he was coming to protect us. So I was surprised”, Lee said.
But it turned out the threat was real.
Lee’s accommodation was changed to Fátima’s Consolata Hotel, where the conference was held.
A conference organiser – an Austrian individual from the ICLN – told him the reason: staff of the Chinese embassy in Austria, where Lee had been before coming to Portugal, had been looking for him.
“Then, in Portugal, I don’t know if the Chinese ambassador himself – or someone he sent – asked the organisers to disinvite us”, Lee denounced.
Why it matters
The spying on Lee and Zen intensified during discussions at the ICLN meet.
Those talks focused, among other issues, on the anti-Government protests in Hong Kong and the September 2018 Beijing-Vatican agreement.
First, the Chinese embassy in Lisbon requested that a representative of theirs be present at the conference.
“I was told they offered the name of a Chinese businessman in Portugal… not a Catholic, not a legislator, but a businessman… So the organiser said ‘no'”, Lee told the SCMP.
Next, Chinese agents asked conference organisers to hand out documents at the conference setting out China’s position on Hong Kong and the Vatican agreement: a request that organisers accepted.
All while policemen were stationed outside the Consolata Hotel, and Chinese spies kept watch on the building and photographed conference participants, according to media reports.
Those same reports said Chinese agents even tried to break into the hotel and to follow meeting participants.
But Lee said that, despite the pressure, he never felt in danger.
“They would not be so stupid, because people would know”, Lee explained.
For the record
Cardinal Zen, an outspoken critic of the Beijing-Vatican deal and of the Chinese communist regime, told the SCMP that the spying scandal was “silly”.
“We were at a very private meeting, and [there was] much praying besides the meeting, because we were in Fátima. They had nothing to be worried about. We gave no interviews and no responses”, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong said.
“The meeting was about family, human rights and religious freedom. We were all Catholic, so we talked about ourselves. So why were they so worried?”
A spokesman from the Portuguese foreign ministry confirmed to the SCMP that “people linked to the Chinese embassy in Lisbon were in the premises where the International Catholic Legislators Network [event] was taking place”.
But that spokesman denied media claims that Chinese spies had been arrested.
“There was no Chinese citizen or citizen of other nationality detained during that occasion by the Portuguese authorities”, the foreign ministry representative said.
He added that the foreign ministry had used “appropriate diplomatic channels” to investigate the espionage claims but “after explanations provided by the Chinese authorities, it is considered [the spying] a closed matter”.
The SCMP spoke to experts who shed light on why China would want to meddle in a high-profile event like the ICLN summit.
“Beijing is monitoring closely the Christian activism, and they have tried to influence public opinion as well as send a warning sign to those who have joined the [Hong Kong] protests”, explained Shun-hing Chan, an expert in religion and social movements at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London, said Chinese spying in general is on the rise.
“China is in a quandary – doomed if it does try to influence things, and doomed if it doesn’t”, Brown claimed.